Harvard's Historic Fox Club Revokes Membership For Female Students

Universities have come a long way from their exclusive origins, but recent developments at Harvard show that there's still room for growth.

A woman in winter clothes reading a tablet on a red chair by a fire pit surrounded by snow.

The Fox Club, one of the eight original Harvard University's all-male clubs, is back to being boys only after a short dabble in co-ed membership.

The Crimson, the university's newspaper, reports that the graduate board has revoked provisional membership for nine female students, placing the club itself in line for potential extinction as new sanctions for single-gender clubs will come into effect in fall 2017.

Harvard announced in May 2016 that students who become members of single-gender groups unrecognized by the university will be unable to hold leadership positions in athletic teams and other recognized student groups, and that they will also be rendered ineligible for endorsements to prestigious fellowships, such as the Marshall and Rhodes scholarships.

The graduating class of 2021 will be the first group of students to be affected by these new rules, meaning that if single-gender clubs don't become co-ed quickly, their chance at new membership will take a severe hit. 

Amidst fierce debate over the existence of single-gender clubs, in October 2015 undergraduate members of the Fox Club invited nine female students from the junior and senior classes to join. The move deeply divided the club, as there were members on the graduate board who vehemently opposed opening the institution to co-ed membership.

After much in-fighting, the graduate board members decided to allow the women to stay on as provisional members, a sexist compromise that some male members protested by taking provisional membership themselves. It was a messy stalemate, but with the administration's looming plans, there was hope for the female members and their allies.

However, on Monday, The Crimson reported that the Fox Club had revoked all provisional memberships and only invited the male members to reapply for full membership.

Although they have become a focal point of the campus battle for inclusive social clubs, the Fox Club is not alone, as only four of the university's 23 single-gender clubs have transitioned to co-ed membership at this point. Many have adopted a "wait and see" policy to watch how the sanctions play out in university politics, a sad indicator of how far society still has to go.

"A minority of the graduates inclusive of the graduate board are not in favor of women joining the club, so in this case. We have an example of a republic prevailing over a democracy," the Rev. Douglas W. Sears, who served as graduate board president of the Fox Club, told NBC News.

He added that some people were just determined to be on the wrong side of history.

Universities were, in origin, exclusionary institutions designed as spaces for the elite. As the world made strides forward in gender, racial, and economic equality, the concept of universities shifted to become more inclusive, but old ways die hard.

John Thelin, a professor of higher education and public policy at the University of Kentucky, told reporters at NBC that this incident was remarkably similar to the turmoil in campus secret societies in the 1960s and 1970s when many universities started to become co-ed. Harvard itself didn't become co-ed until the late 1970s, and it was no easy feat to establish a community with some gender equality.

In 1984, nine all-male social clubs severed their official ties from Harvard rather than accepting female members.

"By extending their talent net beyond their traditional constituents, these institutions have become so much more talented and more vibrant," Thelin said of the shift from elitist institutions to more inclusive campuses. "With these kind of internal squabbles, I think there are some pretty serious values involved. I would say that the dinosaurs seemed to have come to life, maybe, in Cambridge."

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